Interesting Behavior of Black-billed Magpie – Part 2
This is an observation in August 2005 in west Lethbridge. I have made similar observations before at other places and times, but the observation was recorded on this date. Magpies to my understanding are absolutely fascinating to observe. They are an extremely intelligent species of bird for behavioral studies and what is more important to note is that they seem to observe human behavior and practices closely for their advantage. I was quite intrigued to observe that a black-billed magpie was working its beak through a plastic garbage bag loaded with garbage accidentally left outside a dumpster. As the bird successfully made its way through the soft plastic cover, I noted it started foraging across the contents of the bag occasionally feasting on the food items that it located within the torn bag. Once the feasting was over, possibly within 2-3 minutes, the bird kept on searching into the bag as if it was still looking for anything that may prove useful to it. After another minute or so, I saw that it flew away with something shiny, although it was difficult to decipher what the object was from the distance where I was standing and observing the bird. Anyways, I waited there for another 4-5 minutes and was about to walk towards the nearby London Drugs to buy some postage stamps from the Canada post outlet there, when I was amazed to hear the characteristic sharp calls of the magpies. To my surprise, I saw five other magpies (possibly varying between adults and sub adults) flocking round the torn garbage bag foraging and nervously jumping and fluttering wings. Since the previous bird foraging did not have any specific marking for identification, I was unable to determine if that bird communicated or invited the others to look into the booty, or whether by observing the success of the earlier bird, others in the vicinity have joined in the search and foraging to find things of interest for themselves. However, they flew away after a couple of minutes possibly being unable to find something of interest for them or any other available food items. After a minute or so, three more flew in investigating the bag and left again followed by a couple more in small flocks of 2-3 in the following ten minutes. The foraging was finally interrupted by the sudden visit of a herring gull when the magpies flew back, never to return in the next 10-15 minutes or so. After that I left for the London Drugs.
When I got back after another 10 minutes finishing my job, the bag was found left unattended and there were no birds seen close by. It appeared to me that black billed magpies may have a social communication system like the bees where they communicate among themselves about possible food and other resources among their family or clan or group members or neighbors. However, this is a hypothesis and needs to be verified under controlled experimental conditions. I do find these species of bird to be social and to have some sort of communal bonding and association for mutual benefits; could possibly be a part of their social life and structure too. It seemed to me that they do cooperate and coordinate in group activities while foraging and defending their territories against other intruders. Yet they are intelligent enough to pull back and assess the strengths of their opponents, thereby developing successful strategies of survival.
My other general observations on black billed magpie have been that they are devoted parents and they maintain distinct territories and respect their boundaries. I have seen more birds in the urban settlements compared to rural areas and farming localities. They also possibly use the same nesting sites over the years, however, that has to be verified by proper experiments. I have always seen the birds in the favored nesting sites along the university campus every year; but whether these are the same birds or different ones occupying favored nesting sites need to be verified. Possibly they are more used to city based food sources rather than the rural food sources in their diet preferences. They appeared to me as omnivorous species that are opportunistic in nature and will devour anything that they find useful for their survival under harsh conditions. They are possibly getting used to foods consumed by humans as I have seen that they eagerly accept chips, popcorns, hash browns, fried potatoes, apple, pear, watermelon, cheese and slices of jam bread, cheese cakes, salami and burger but rejecting carrots, broccoli, onion, cucumber, garlic, cauliflower, lettuce, celery, tomato, pepper and pumpkins that I have tried feeding them for my observation. It seemed to me that they possibly have preferences for food items with softer texture and sweeter taste. I have seen them often venturing into empty portico and balconies searching for food. They seem to have a special liking for shiny objects and they are possibly attracted to them as I have observed they often carry them in their beaks. The nests of black-billed magpie that I had the chance to look into often include plastics, thermocol, pieces of nylon wires, pieces of plastic garbage bags etc in addition to twigs and branches as constructing material. They seem to be opportunistic of their urban habitat and select items they feel that are useful for them from their immediate environment.
The birds are noisy, active, and energetic, but nervous and restless, always moving from one tree to another within their defined range. They are often aggressive with in-fights, in which the dominant bird pins the submitting one under its feet to he ground with its belly up and peck each other aggressively. However, I have noted they try and avoid confrontations as much as possible. Active from dawn to dusk, but usually prefer shade during midday or when the temperature is high, usually roost on branches of tall trees and shrubs during night. They are often seen foraging on the ground during active period and fly away at the slightest possible alerts. I have seen magpie catching insects and devouring small wild fruits and berries. They are often chased off by the small red winged black birds nesting along ditches and swamps if the magpie ventures too close to them. They are mostly tree inhabitants and terrestrial in their habitat preferences, however in hot summer evenings I have seen them flocking together and often taking a quick dip in the water of the canal or at the edge of a water body for cooling off.
Continued from Part One
Article contributed by Saikat Kumar Basu